God Speaks to us Through the Bible
Sermon preached at the Church of St. Peter & St. Paul, Marietta, GA
by The Rev. Tom Pumphrey, October 20, 2019
Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost (year C, proper 24):
Jeremiah 31:27-34; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8
2 Timothy 3:14 – 4:5 (NRSV): As for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.
Despite an air of confidence, most of us carry questions and uncertainty about life. We’ve made plans and we’re trying to do the right things, but the world is often strange, and we’re not always sure how to navigate life. We seek God, but sometimes we’re not clear how God is responding. So sometimes we’re still uneasy with God.
The readings today deal with that uneasiness in our approach to God. These readings also offer us some reassurance that God is listening and responding and drawing us closer. So how do we hear God? How do we embrace God’s promise that he gave through Jeremiah? How do we hear a response to our persistent prayer, like the widow in Jesus’ parable?
Paul’s letter to Timothy gives us an essential part of the answer to how we can hear and follow God. Paul writes a very personal letter to one of his closest colleagues in ministry. Paul writes to Timothy to advise him as a leader in the church, leaving a legacy for Timothy to continue in the next generation, entrusting to Timothy the message of salvation in Jesus Christ.
In this passage, Paul tells Timothy to persevere and to ground his teaching in Holy Scripture. Primarily for Paul at this point in history, Holy Scripture is what we call the Old Testament. But sound doctrine for Paul is also found in the teaching of Jesus and the apostles’ teaching—the teaching we now find in the New Testament. This is God’s message of the Good News of Jesus. Paul received this message from Holy Scripture and from the apostles, and from our Lord himself. Paul now passes this legacy on to Timothy, so that Timothy will hear God’s voice and follow God’s calls.
Paul writes to Timothy: “…continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” Paul encourages Timothy in what he already knows: that God speaks through holy scriptures.
Our culture is much less familiar with the Bible than it once was. Most of society knows only rumors about God, and only caricatures of the Bible. The world often scoffs at devotion and exchanges honor for scandal, sacrificing long established virtues for self-interest. Truly, Paul was right: many have itching ears that seek teachers to suit their own desires and wander away from the truth. We are immersed in that world, so we’re often out of practice in using the Bible to hear God and to learn how to follow God in our lives. So how do we find value in the Bible? How does God speak to us today in the Bible?
Well, the Bible is indeed a very different book from most of what we read these days. It was written by many authors over the span of 1,000 years or more. It is a complex collection of different kinds of texts—law and poetry, parable and history, theology and proverbs, lamentation and celebration. They come from people who spoke different languages, lived in different cultures, in a different land from our own. So there is much that is new and unusual for us, yet the more we learn, the richer our understanding.
These different writings are not a random collection. These are the writings that endured, the writings held as authoritative texts for God’s people, the record of our relationship with God and God’s actions to reconcile us to him. We believe that the Holy Spirit was active in the writing of these texts, and in their editing and compiling, preservation and transmission for new generations. We believe that God’s intentions were at work and are at work in these scriptures. They reveal Jesus Christ, who himself reveals God the Holy Trinity.
These are not just archaeological artifacts, but these scriptures are a living text. God speaks to us today through the Bible. By “a living text,” we don’t mean that we constantly change the Bible, or that we can dispose of the parts we don’t like and add new ones that we prefer. Rather, when we say that the Bible is a living text, we mean that the Holy Spirit is still at work in us as we read and study scriptures, as we pray with them and discuss them and seek God’s voice in their pages.
We describe the Bible as a living text also because seeking God through the Bible is not merely an individual endeavor. Rather, we read the Bible in conversation with others who are also reading and praying and seeking God’s voice. We read with others in this church. We read with Christians across the street and down the road. We read with Baptists like Max Lucado and Catholics like Mother Theresa. We read with other Christians around the world, whether N.T. Wright or Desmond Tutu. We also read with that great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us, faithful Christians who also wrestled with God as we wrestle with God: Christians like C.S. Lewis, Thomas Cranmer, Theresa of Avila, Martin Luther, Augustine, Athanasius and Irenaeus.
Echoes of their words still ring in our ears and shape how we read and hear holy scripture, helping us to stay true to God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ.
But how does this work? How does God speak to us through the Bible?…Let me sketch out a few examples that might help you see what this can look like.
A man is embroiled in an argument with his next door neighbor, irritated at having to deal with his complaints. But then he reads in Philippians “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…” (Phil 2:4-5). He’s heard it before, but looking at Jesus’ humility, he starts to wonder about himself, and what humility with his neighbor might look like. He prays about this until God softens his heart to show him a new path to reconciliation. And then he steps out in faith to discover what God has in store for him. God speaks to him through the Bible.
Someone is deeply troubled about what to do in a close friendship. The friend starts to make more and more self-destructive choices, and others are starting to notice. Everyone seems to know that very soon, damage will be done that can’t be repaired. Confused about what to do, she reads with her Bible Study “remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.” (James 5:20, NIV) Someone else in the Bible Study tells the story of a time a family member challenged his habits, and how grateful he was that someone helped him. So she begins to pray for her friend and to seek a way to speak the truth in love. God speaks to her through the Bible.
Or think of a woman whose husband has died, grieved at her loss and frustrated with God, unsure about the future. She opens the psalms and finds Psalm 13, which begins “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?” She reads with her friends from the Gospel According to John how Martha and Mary challenged Jesus when he wasn’t there when their brother Lazarus died. And then she reads how Jesus wept with them, offered them his assurance, and showed them his power to bring new life. (John 11). God speaks to her through the Bible.
Or consider the skeptic who reads Paul’s list of eyewitnesses to the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15). Slowly, he turns his skepticism on himself. He reads C.S. Lewis write about his own conversion from atheism. In time, he learns to listen for a living God. Or what about the successful businesswoman who can’t quite shake from her mind Jesus’ parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:13-21). The more she thinks and prays about this parable, the more she starts to rethink her business priorities and seek God’s guidance in the way. God speaks to them through the Bible.
Or what about the man who betrayed his family and messed up his life. He has come face to face with the burdens of his mistakes, despairing with no sense of how to go on with life. But then he reads the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). He grieves with the son feeding the pigs, looking for a second chance. Then he is awestruck at joy of the father. The man reads and sees himself, and in a moment of insight sees God running toward him like the father in the parable, arms open wide, embracing him, lifting him up, and throwing a party for his return! He has no idea where his next steps will take him, but he brings himself to God and receives that embrace, ready to learn, ready to follow, ready for restoration and reconciliation and new life in Christ. Because God spoke to him through the Bible.
The Bible is a starting point for an encounter with the living God. You can read on your own, but the best way to read holy scriptures is to read them with other Christians who are reading and praying with you. We have numerous Bible Studies and Discipleship Groups in which you can read and grow and grow closer to God with others. There will still be plenty of mystery, but you will discover the voice of a living God reaching out to you and embracing you as you walk with him.